Raja Ampat wonderland in flow

Shot in one of the most amazing diving locations in the world, Raja Ampat in Papua, Indonesia, i’m happy to share possibly the most beautiful hour spent in my life with seven gorgeous manta rays.

Sometimes you’re just lucky for having to conduct your anthropological fieldwork in the area, where such spots of Alice in Wonderland are just few hours boat trip away. I had been working in Sorong already for weeks, when my psychical abilities – and after all these stories I had heard from warias, and experiences we shared, also mental abilities  – were challenged hard. That, on the other hand, formed a great excuse for a weekend getaway to Raja Ampat.

Raja Ampat advertises itself as the ‘Last Paradise on Earth’. Witnessing the massive piles of fish under the sea surface it’s hard to argue the contrary, especially when also encountering the manta rays. These huge birds of the ocean fly around endless blue of the globe and stop around Raja Ampat only for a few months a year. They’re incredibly intelligent and I’m pretty sure they can sense the human vibrations and if you really try, you can communicate with them in some meditative ways.

I combined the video clips I recorded in February 2012 with a random improvisation we played last week with my good old sound collective Voog (translates as flow) in Tartu, Estonia. Guitars: Mänts; drums: Martin, keyboards: terje. Camera, editing by terje

Read more about Raja Ampat here and here.

My love for Papua will never cease

Dragged into silence over the mountains in Papua, which has over this one and a half month become so cozy and sweet for my soul. This here is the new world, and a powerful one – the mountains, seas and desperate heat, clouds lost in bright bleu. When you climb down from the hills or swim up from the depths of the sea, then also the land is bubbling in its juices and massive strengths, where Papuan curly hair, shiny dark skin, smell of the sweat resembling some dry coconut, loud motorbikes and market counters loaded with fruit get all mixed and shaken. This is where the colors of Sulawesi, Javanese charm and the very Indonesian everlasting wish to be friendly are melting together with so rich local heritage, multiplied with all its 300 tribes.

Although all this intensity caused some trouble for my body and health, my mind was still sharp enough to travel along all its wonders and woes, especially to the mystical realms of genders and sexuality. Oh such passion! Such stories! It really took me a lot of effort to go trough all the energy the stories of the waria bear. Riding the hills on my motorbike, music in my ears, waria stories in my head, picturesque views around, heading on another meeting.

I have a flight tomorrow back to Jawa.  Now i’m up in the hills of Jayapura CITY, the view over the town and the mountains that set the setting stage for the sun – the hot sun, I adore every morning I wake up, and which I start to despise only a few hours later. I have never been to a place more hot than Papua.

I drink Coca-Cola and eat banana. Indeed, sadly, there’s probably no more corner on the earth where people wouldn’t drink Coca-Cola or at least wouldn’t know anyone else who hasn’t had one.  But the bananas here are sweeter than anywhere else. I even bought a separate cluster to take with me on the plane as my hand-luggage to my friends in Yogyakarta.

There’s some certain force, enlightenment, life and desire to get along with each other that is so remarkable in the city cultures of Papua, as well as the new world’s desire to make things better, than maybe in some of the old worlds. Yes, my love for Papua will never cease. Terima kasih, teman-teman di Papua, aku pasti kembali lagi! I’ll be back, sure.

Party in the hills, Papuan special

This night ended with a Papuan waria crying on my shoulder. In the distance there was a big car stuck in the soft grassy ground trying to speed off – to be exact, all the cars that had climbed up to the hill between Abepura and Jayapura were big and they expressed the wealth of the driver or the company in the car. Above us was a fabulous starlit sky, which here, away from the city hustle, seems as powerful as ever. N isn’t coming with us, “N is flying,” as P says, whose chubby boyfriend is sitting on the back of the motorbike, kicking his heels. P is a driver, the dude is sitting comfortably behind her. And on my shoulder there’s a frizzy haired drunken waria from Serui tribe crying. She was crying over the most important thing. It felt as if all the inevitability of the destiny of the warias culminated in her tears. Love. Love that seems so impossible, love that’s so unreachable. Because between the frequencies of their bodies and souls there’s suddenly some phallic extra.

“What happened? Are you sure you don’t want to go home with your boyfriend?” I asked.
“No, we’re over”, she shakes her head and wipes the tears off. “I don’t need you anymore! We’re through!” she yells once again to the guy who has vanished into the crowd. A few moments ago they’d clung around each other’s necks like love birds. I’d admired the sugar face that cool waria had found for herself.
I’d met L the same night around nine when she’d finished her work and was going home. On her way she’d stepped into U’s salon, where I with N, P, her boyfriend and a few other guys were killing time. We were talking in the hot N salon, where the air seemed to have stopped moving. There was sweat dripping from her neck to her wide cleavage, and a glinting circle appeared on her forehead that was surrounded by her frizzy hair. I remember that when we were talking about sex work she told that she didn’t do that much anymore, because she has a job. Every time she goes out with friends, she goes home at 1 am, langsung tidur, directly to bed. A few hors later we were hanging at Kali Acay and I noticed a beautiful guy trough my camera, a guy who wasn’t shy at all to be in the picture with a group of warias. A second later I saw him sharing a bike with L, they were both so happy. L gave a gentle kiss on the guy’s shoulder, and then she was impishly playing with her fingers near his groin. For me they looked like a hot couple and I was puzzled when the same sugar face came to me to beg my phone number, L still hanging around his neck. N set the things straight: “Her number is exclusively for warias only, khusus untuk waria.” Of course the guy tried his luck a few more times. Unfortunately I had no time to meet with them again, although from a researcher’s aspect it could have been interesting.
Our party started at U’s salon, where we had ordered a few bottles of a weird transparent drink, called Jenefer. Jenefer is bottled into a huge round one-liter bottle, it’s like gasoline and it’s often mixed with green Sprite. We closed the salon’s windows and doors and tried to gasp some air with a help of a fan or a piece of card board. It’s still unbearably hot, although it’s long after 9 pm. But of course no one of the neighbours or people passing by should see we’re sitting with a group in a salon that was opened a few moths ago and drinking alcoholic beverages. Not that it would be something that’s done very rarely on Papua, but social harmony is highly valued here. P’s boyfriend poured a shot of the green bubbly drink and passed it on, the beat coming from the big speakers set under the ceiling was ticking in everyone’s head.
P was seemingly worried when the shot reached me – because I was with a motor bike and I had told him that I didn’t have too much experience driving a motor bike in a Papuan night. But N said it was nothing, because the people in our country are used to drinking alcohol, there’s nothing to worry about. N seemed to have a lot of respect for our distant country. For example, once she introduced me repeatedly as „Cece, dari Estonia, ibu-kota Amerika.” Meaning, I’m from Estonia, the capital of America.
People nodded agreeably. Who wouldn’t know America?! It sounded so wicked that for a while I didn’t dare to correct her. I was giggling on my own. Estonia – the capital of America.
Despite of me having long term health problems on Papua, and of the weather being sweatting hot, and of being in a some stress arising from my research, I still thought I’d know my limits between social drinking and drinking that scatters the state of mind. It took about 3 shots. Actually it wasn’t the alcohol, it was life itself.

Coincidence leading to the life above the waves

I made it to Jayapura. Classic situation: in an unknown town without a place to stay. Since my friend Minna had made some contacts here already before and from her latest text I got an impression that her social capital will happily accommodate the next Estonian in town, too. Although I didn’t get a text including info where I should go and who to call. A while later I realized the phone lines were down – quite normal when in Papua, especially when sailing on the ocean – I simply don’t receive texts. The last night in the ferry I was sitting with Amanda on the deck at her stall I tried once again to call Minna. The only thing I heard over the phone was “Dear!” and “I have to leave the country tomorrow!”. I knew it already. But where and how? And in the practical perspective – how am I going to find her friend in Jayapura? These questions disappeared into the haze of the flaky reception. The next time I had reception was the next day, a little before arriving at Jayapura. By then Minna’s phone was out of reach, meaning she’d left the country, left from Indonesia to Papua New Guinea. Full of hope I waited for a text with my hosts phone number.

Full of hope I was looking around when coming off the boat – maybe my potential host has come to meet me at the port? Of course not. I walked as far as I could carry my backpack, took an ojek that took me to an internet café. If only I had known the man was taking me to the outskirts where there really was an internet café, but actually he had only wanted to drive a newly arrived tourist around, and since we drove quite far he ripped me off with 20 000 rp and even left me without an option to take a hotel. Before stepping in the internet café I noticed a printing shop across the street, and I wanted to go there to get prepared for tomorrow’s meeting with my supervisor.

A lonely woman with a big bag somewhere in the outskirts of the town certainly left the people of the printing shop puzzled. As it’s common in Indonesia, they wanted to help me. Starting from an offer to use the shop’s computer for ma internet needs – unfortunately I couldn’t reach my friend on Skype, no luck with that – and finishing with the fact that one of the customers, a nice Papuan ibu, offered a place to stay for the night.

„It’s already late, you’re going to stay with me tonight and tomorrow you’ll go on looking for your friend,” she proposed. At first I was trying to find my way out of it so that I could avoid causing any trouble, but in the end I still decided to go along her will – I convinced myself that on Papua I’d most certainly like to see how Papuans live, what is their social universe like.  We took a taxi and drove to Jayapura city – to a house that had been built on water. Her children were so happy and excited to meet me.

Every night I dream about earthquakes because the house is on constant move, in the rhythm of the waves. You shouldn’t play with your lighter or phone here – you never know, it might fall through the floor into the sea. And this is how I found myself a lovely Papuan family.

Everything must be good for something – meeting my key informant

„Aah! So you were studying the warias?” one fleshy security guard asked me, his eyes glittering. The word waria (or banci, as people often know them, although it bears some negative connotations) has a kind of magic power that makes Indonesians’ eyes glitter and smile on their face, of course unfortunately, this often a sign for ridicule. “This here is a waria! This is a waria!” he points at a guy who’s delved into the bed. The guy is probably the clumsiest and shiest, and thus is probably chaffed all the time.

Granny manifests: Legalize! a few-hour stop-over on Serui island

Already in the evening of my first day on the boat I had a feeling that this boat trip might be something I really need. I wandered on the deck, talked to people and had started going back to the cabin when I suddenly turned around. I noticed a interesting-looking girl, who apparently was a waria. Her name was Amanda. She’s from Bali, but for the past ten years she’s lived in Jayapura, where she’d escaped with her sweetheart from Solo. They had lived ten years in Jayapura like a man and a woman, but now they’ve finished their relationship. The man returned to Solo to marry a woman. I asked if her heart ached. And again, to my surprise, she too said it didn’t. “I’m happy we got to be together so long,” she tells.

Amanda went to Ambon and back. She’s travelling with three other people who sell coffee, snacks and cigarettes on the boat. Seems that many finance their trip that way. Standing there like that many gave me their hand to say hello and a few more words. One drunk Papuan man started babbling in English “oh, I’m talking to a waria, it’s a waria!” he mumbled as if he couldn’t understand what was going on. To illustrate what he’d just said he made some awkward dancing moves.  Already then I was afraid something insulting might be on its way, because there’s nothing that could be more tactless than a drunk Papuan. But the man said: “Yes, these are warias, they have trouble within themselves, but they are here, they are just like you and me, they are part of the world in Papua!”

On the contrary for the worst that I had expected, it seemed the man was moved that I,  a visitor from afar, had amongst the thousands on the boat chosen the only waria to talk to. This incident also illustrates something I realized during my three weeks here – Papuans take warias as something natural to the “modernized” (“indonized?”) world, they see waria as a colour, and what could they really have against beautiful, fun, sexy and well dancing warias? Since when have Papuans been those who dictate morale and order arising from it? This has always been the task of Indonesians or of Indonesian central power, who historically don’t really like the frizzy hair and the chaotic lifestyle of Papuans. If waria is a part of their “developed” world, so be it! A Papuan gets drunk and is delighted to have fun in the company of tall light-skinned Javanese warias. Why not?!

And Amanda became my most favourite girlfriend in the next town we landed.

In a cabin with four enormous security guys across the Pacific

After a few-days vacation in Raja Ampat I was finally in a condition I felt strong enough to move on. But then it appeared that all flights to Jayapura had been sold out and only the unacceptably expensive where left.  So I had to decide in the favour of a boat trip. So, here I am, on Nggapulu ship, sailing from Sorong, the gate of Papua, to Jaypura, the capital of Papua, for three days and three nights. An economy ticket costs a bit more than 300 000 rp, but after boarding you can easily bargain for a room in another class, or pay a crew member, who wants to earn some extra money, to sleep in his or her bed. On boarding passengers are surrounded by the hum of the members of the crew, “kamar-kamar-kamar...”, which means that they’re ready to give their room for a passenger for a certain amount of money. The usual fee is  100 000 rp a port, which for me would have meant 500 000 rp, which again I couldn’t agree with. A reserved crew member with a really sweet face took me to his room and asked 2,5 millions for it. I burst out laughing – I’d take a plane for that money!

After several maneuvers, from the front room of the captain’s quarters to the doctor’s office, I finally ended up in the security room – SATPAM, as it’s called. Now I share a room with four heavy men, one of whom, Iwan, gave his bed to me. The game is tough because I have made no monetary agreements with them, on the other hand, there aren’t too many free lunches in the world. So, I have to keep myself sharp and alert to keep away from all possible unpleasantnesses. Which is of course the result of the fact that I’m a woman and they’re men – endless game between a stick and a slit.
So I woken in the middle of the night by Iwan’s head that had appeared from behind the curtain covering the bed, and which was talking weird words to me. I snapped that I was sleeping and told him not to disturb me, which made the head with it’s puppy eyes disappear behind the curtain. But it soon appeared again:
„Cece! Cece! Maybe we could sleep here together?”
„What do you mean?”
„Well, we’d sleep side by side, sama-sama.”
„Come on… Let me sleep!”
Maybe if I hadn’t been really tired and not so miserable because of my health I couldn’t have slept on knowing that there’s one strong security guard, and three more, who’d like to play some kind of sex games with me. Oh, no, never! I’d never let even their little finger touch me.
A few hours before I’d been broken of the thought that I was once again dealing with unpleasantnesses and that I didn’t have enough money to bail myself out. And that I have to do it all for a mere research, which only fills an abstract field in  sparse academic knowledge. Utterly exhausted, with a tonsil pain (my tonsils were covered with white dots), carrying my heavy back pack up and down the narrow stairs on the boat, and holding a heavy fruit basket, which had to cover my vitamin needs for the following days, I once again found myself in agony asking, why am I here!?! But adventures, challenges and a constant fight for right on your way are probably inevitable parts of the life of an anthropologist. Because if you’d use money to move from every situation into a comfort zone, then you would miss the real life.
You can get away from unpleasantnesses using either money or power. Although I don’t have a lot of money, I do have a little power in here. Currently my power is in my rather fluent Indonesian, and the fact that I’m a visitor from afar (the only foreigner on that boat),  and they see me as beautiful, that helps too. Although it’s not a lot, it’s enough to bargain for a place in the security guards’ cozy room.  Now I simply need to come to terms with the fact that besides me there is a number of men in uniform and one of them is extremely attracted to my tongue peircing. At least I have a certain freedom to breath cooled air, drink much coffee and write, write and write.

Happy room-mate

The great tortures of the trips – pain and horror

Oh, woe and misery! Although I had had Papua on my mind for a long time I had to state already at my arrival that my dreams had been quite tough. Yes, there’s a lot of sunshine on Papua, but it’s not simply the sun – it’s the beat of the whole Papua, an it’s tough. Tough heat, high humidity, scorching sun, wind.

I’d had constant health problems for the past three weeks already. It all started on Sulawesi, in the downstaires room of Eka’s younger sister, where I’d slept for about a week. I’d probably got an allergic reaction to the musty rugs in that bed. My state couldn’t improve much in Makassar, where we lived in the salon of a cool waria Jaka. As she’s a busy hairdresser, the floor was evenly covered with hairs, the rug in our bedroom also had a thick cover of hairs. On the boat to Papua I felt utterly weak. This, of course, became an excellent excuse on a boat which density was 3 times as big as it should have been, for begging for a space where the density was a bit more sparse, in other words – in the boat’s hospital. Minna and I were sailing from one island to another, spending two nights in a ward, which, in the boat terms, was impossibly sterile. We even had our own shower and an air conditioner, which seemed like luxury.

Unfortunately- thinking of taking care of myself but it turned out the opposite – I took two malaria pills that wiped me off for the next three days. When in Segeri I fell into bed and started waiting for days I’d feel a bit more alive, although already at the very first evening I met a few of my informants. Those days of feeling more alive arrived a few days later when the weakening effect of the malaria bills had vanished. Refusing to lose the next three days for the pains of the pill weakness I traded the local Indonesian pills for the expensive Malarone pills I’d brought from Estonia. I’d taken them for three days when I realised that although those pills didn’t have such a killing effect on my body, they gave me a real psychological thriller. I noticed I had had the similar processes in my brain a year ago on Kalimantan, when I’d conscientiously eaten the same pills and thought why this trip had been somehow weird, why had I had such existential hesitations. As if this wasn’t enough, a random graze on my leg I’d got at Jaka’s was bleeding and a bit purulent. When I hurried to meet the greatest Bissu-researcher in the world, mas Halilintar Latief, I was mounting a lesbian chick’s, whose hair had freshly been dyed, motor bike, I hit my leg against Jaka’s rusty gate. The young at the meeting suggested I  put a bandage on it immediately (as if the things you can’t see don’t exist). I said I wanted something I could cleanse it with first, but they kept saying “no-no, this bandage is antiseptic”and put its package in front of me so I could read the whole truth myself – the bandage is antiseptic. I was too inattentive to pay any more attention to my graze.

But the wound, which in Europe would’ve cured in a couple of days,  after a two-week status quo, decided to swell up, leaving half the leg paralyzed. At first I cleansed it with Estonian vodka, later a Chinese pharmacist gave me some brown Chinese magic ointment. While taking a shower I kept my right foot in the air. For a moment it felt as if things were getting better, but it was only a feeling. At night I was again and again woken by my hurting leg. In a feverish state we rushed into the harbour so that we could spend a few days off in Raja Ampat. I was sweating all over my body, but at the same time I was extremely cold in the sun. Finally in Waisai, the capital of Raja, I fell asleep. The next morning I made a decision to make an exception in my five-year-long antibiotics’ denial and fished for the pills in the tiny bag in the very bottom of by backbag. The pills had travelled with me for years, and I’d never really known when I’d need them.

Me, close to the end.

The few days in Raja definitely improved my health, but it all seemed to fall into pieces when looking at the adversity we had to face on our way back. On our way to Sorong on a heavily swaying speed-boat we were hit by huge waves. And I mean – HUGE. In addition to my burnt body I was still physically weak and this roller coaster was more horrible than it’d be in the worst amusement park. Most of the passengers were puking – some into a bucket, some into a bag and some with a nice bow directly onto the floor. The heavy waves hit against the windows and children were crying. Air! The least one could find in this torture room was air. After a huge wave had flown into the boat the last hole in this claustrophobic room was closed. It stank of gasoline, my body was covered with cold sweat. I wished I’d been washed into the waves, I’d agreed to die.

I had colourful pictures of curvy corals flashing before my eyes, they’d engraved such a picture into my subconsciousness that they appeared as ayahuasca visions. Now they were announcing the beginning of the end, I was on my way to the underworld, the death was almost there. It seemed the two hours had been the most horrible in my life. I could compare it only with the bus that once took us from Kenya to Tanzania, which Berit and I had named a Monster. The Monster had been rattling so much I’d thought my breast would fall off. To make the matters worse, I had a few-days-old chick in my hands that had gone nuts of the rattle and yelling and pooped in my hands after every 10 minutes. I was keeping it warm in my armpit. My whole body was sunburnt and covered with itchy mango allergy dots. When I wanted to tell something to Berit, who was suffering right next to me, I had to yell. Although it’d be easier to go off a bus than a boat, then in this case we were surrounded by savannas, which meant lions, panthers, and who-knows-what-else. But then I saw an upside-down Big Dipper in the sky and realised, this torture had to be worth something. At the sunrise we saw the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro in the distance, it was like a miracle.

When finally in Sorong the only things I could see were tens of white teeth rows of the ojek drivers. The teeth were surrounded by a red pinan circle and seemed to move in slow motion. Certainly they were offering me a ride, but I couldn’t think or react on anything. I needed a stable ground and maybe some sleep. I fell onto a deck in the shade and stayed there for the next two hours, until the nosy Papuans came to me and tried to wake and take care of me using different means. Hidup lagi, we’ll live. When I opened my eyes I saw a number of Papuan women around me, carefully spreading something on my forehead and rubbing my feet.

Being on a trip or on an anthropological fieldwork is a separate chapter in its dramaturgy. These two stories are probably my peaks, although when looking back at them they seem good for something, but … no no no, “don’t try it at home”, don’t. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to go through such pain and horror. So wish you all strong immunity, good health and long journeys!